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Vashon community works to retain teachers

Amy Watkins, a teacher in the Edmonds School District, picks out a friendship bracelet for her daughter, while Molly Dillon, 10, places her money in a donation can. Her mother, Shelley Dillon, right, helped out in the fundraising effort. - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Amy Watkins, a teacher in the Edmonds School District, picks out a friendship bracelet for her daughter, while Molly Dillon, 10, places her money in a donation can. Her mother, Shelley Dillon, right, helped out in the fundraising effort.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

Molly Dillon sat in front of Vashon Thriftway selling homemade cookies and friendship bracelets on Sunday — not for an extracurricular club or Island nonprofit but to save teaching positions at her elementary school.

“We don’t want good people to lose their jobs,” the 10-year-old Chautauqua Elementary School student said matter-of-factly, a plate of chocolate chip cookies in front of her.

Indeed, many — from fifth-graders like Molly to the head of the school district — are working hard to try to help Vashon’s cash-strapped public schools stave off a round of layoffs that could cost several teachers their jobs.

An ambitious fundraising effort slated to end next week has garnered more than $25,000 so far — enough to save a portion of one position. School board member Laura Wishik, who is spearheading the effort, said she hopes the campaign will bring in $50,000 by the time it concludes on June 15.

Meanwhile, Terry Lindquist, who heads the three-school district, has come up with a number of other ways to retain a teacher or two while closing a $1 million budget gap — one of the worst shortfalls in the district’s history.

Under a plan he presented to the school board at its last meeting, the district will save more than $100,000 in transportation costs by reducing bus service. The district will no longer offer mid-day kindergarten bus service under Lindquist’s plan; it will reduce the number of stops, emulating the route structure currently used for snow days; and it will not provide service to those students who live within a mile of their school.

Lindquist is also considering several other cuts, including reducing the number of nurses at Chautauqua from two to one and cutting some of the smaller sports teams, such as the junior varsity baseball team and the golf team.

“None of this is carved in stone,” said Lindquist, who needs to present a balanced budget to the board in a couple of weeks. “Everything’s still on the table.”

The district’s budget woes are largely due to the recession and its impact on the state’s coffers. Because people are spending less, the state, which is heavily dependent on the sales tax, had to shave nearly $9 billion from its two-year budget, including an $800 million reduction in state support to public schools.

On Vashon, the reduction in state funds has resulted in a $1 million hole in its $14 million budget; a decline in the number of incoming kindergartners has added to the district’s budget problems.

But kindergarten enrollment has gone up a bit since pink slips were sent out to teachers last month, Lindquist said, enabling him to rehire one teacher.

And after an outpouring from teachers at McMurray Middle School over the district’s plans to no longer staff the library with a certificated librarian, Lindquist found the funds to maintain that position on a part-time basis.

The community fundraising plan, he said, is now focused on another position of concern to many parents, teachers and administrators — the half-time counseling position at the high school, a position cut when pink slips went out last month.

“That’s one of our next priorities,” Lindquist said.

The current fundraising campaign, an effort to get every parent to kick in $150 for each child enrolled at one of the three public schools, is an unprecedented undertaking on Vashon, organizers said.

Community members have long contributed money for the schools; the biggest efforts include PTSA’s annual auction, which brought in $83,000 in May, and Partners In Education’s annual phone-a-thon, which raised nearly $50,000 this year to enrich the three schools. But to the best of Lindquist’s knowledge, the community has never stepped forward with a fundraising campaign to try to retain teachers, he said.

Wishik, who initially met some resistance on the school board when she offered up her proposal, said she decided to spearhead the effort because she felt parents should be given the opportunity to help the district salvage teaching positions. The district has long taken pride in its low student-teacher ratios, she noted. What’s more, the number of layoffs the district is currently facing — the equivalent of 10 positions, at last count — represents its biggest one-time reduction in force, Lindquist said.

To garner support, letters asking parents to give went home with every student. Since then, volunteers have made telephone calls, “not to pressure people but to ask if they got the information and if they have any questions,” Wishik said.

Wishik, a mother of two and a lawyer for the city of Seattle, has also planted herself in front of Bob’s Bakery the last couple of Saturdays, urging Islanders to consider giving to the campaign.

While the effort has focused on parents, Wishik and others have tried to go beyond the parent community.

Ray Aspiri, a well-known Islander who has long been a big supporter of education on Vashon, recently stepped forward, agreeing to “sponsor” five students, as Wishik put it.

“There are a lot of people in the community who want to support education. This is a nice, easy way to demonstrate it. Our students and our teachers need our help,” Aspiri said.

Some have questioned the fundraising effort, noting that parents, too, are struggling financially because of the economic downturn. Others, in e-mails sent to The Beachcomber, said they wondered how contributers can be sure their money goes towards teachers and not other school district needs.

Lindquist said he’s certain all the money will be used for teacher retention; if a small amount is left over, he added, it will be pooled with other district funds to retain a staff position.

As for the need to give, Molly Dillon and her mother Shelley said they believe even a small amount can help. During their fundraising effort Sunday, the mother-daughter team raised $300 — proceeds garnered from cookies that sold for $1 and friendship bracelets at $5 each.

When she was a child, Shelley Dillon recalled, school budget problems caused the district to cancel its bus service until parents rallied and raised $100,000 to reinstate it.

“I know it’s possible,” the mother of two said.

Noting that she hopes to stimulate other efforts and keep them going through the summer, she added, “I’d love for the community to get excited about it. We have so much creative energy on Vashon.”

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